Friday, September 13, 2013

Sometimes Being an Expat Sucks Series Part 2: When You Have No Creative Outlet

I'm calling this series "Sometimes Being an Expat Sucks". It might sound harsh, but when you're in the middle of these issues, it really can suck. Last time I wrote about dealing with being lonely and making friends in your new home. I was really amazed by the reaction I got! So many of you reached out to say how it resonated with you. I don't know about you, but it made me feel better to know that I'm not the only one who struggles with feeling lonely in my expat life. 

The next part of the series is What to do when you don't have a creative outlet.

I feel like I have a pretty standard trailing spouse story. I met a guy while I was living in Germany, we got married, and I moved across an ocean for him. I left behind a very active social life, lots of stimulating hobbies, a fun job, and a packed schedule. But when I got to Bavaria I had no job opportunities or chances to continue my hobbies. Suddenly, I was a trailing spouse.

I still struggle with being a trailing spouse. Before Fionn was in the picture, I had been doing my own expat thing in Europe since 2009-first as a student, then with my own job, chasing whatever dream or inspiration I wanted. Coming to Europe as a wife, well that was a whole different ballgame. As many of you know, it's often hard to find a job in your new place. Either they're scarce, all the other trailing spouses are competing with you for them, the bureaucracy and red tape of your host country makes it impossible, or you don't speak the language. Then you find yourself in your house with nothing but free time.

Free time is good. Free time and nothing to do is a recipe for a very unhappy expat.

My search for a job here in Germany has been fruitless and very frustrating. One night while complaining to Fionn, he suggested I stop focusing on the fact that I couldn't find a job-it was out of my control and just made me unhappy. It's not like I wasn't trying or was an undesirable candidate, there just weren't jobs available, period. 

Secondly, he suggested that I pick the things I loved to do and focus my energy on those instead. What was I passionate about? What did I dream of doing but never had time for? If I was going to be stuck with lots of free time I might as well make the most of it, right?

My first thing was music. I'm a musician, and I seriously missed that part of my life. I met some Irish musicians in Nurnberg and was invited to join their band. Then I volunteered to sing and play music for the local church, which ended up being wonderful for me. I made new friends, broadened my musical repertoire and got the opportunity to teach violin classes to local kids. Recently I took over as a Praise and Worship Director for our local Women's Ministry, a responsibility I could actually put on a resume.

Getting plugged into music again inspired me to look at my interests and talents and how I could use them creatively. Since I speak German, I started offering free translation and editing services to my friends. That led to informal German lessons and finally some paid freelance work translating and editing for Germans and Americans alike.

Finally, the blog. Though I originally started the blog for my mom (hi mom!) I realized it could be a great tool to help people. People planning vacations, expats looking for something to do in Bavaria, or other women like me dealing with the curve balls this life can toss your way. Once I started taking my blog seriously, more people started visiting. And even though I'm just a little blog, if I help one person today then mission accomplished :)

When you're an expat in a job desert, you've got to get creative. It's not easy, and you will definitely have the days where you think, why am I stuck in this random place when I could be in XYZ using my talents/degree/brain/really ridiculously amazing good looks!?

I've definitely felt this way during my ongoing job search...

You're right. In another place you could have better opportunities, and that is so frustrating to think about. But if you dwell on it, you'll make yourself crazy. Take a step back and try to enjoy that you get the chance to live abroad. You get to travel and have experiences other people dream of. Dude, you are living the inspirational Pinterest travel meme! Find something positive to focus on, and then get creative! What're you good at? What do you love to do?

I've met some inspiring ladies here in Bavaria, ladies who turned their passion for beautiful, tasty cakes into a thriving home business, a skill at crocheting into the most sought after baby blankets in all of Bavaria, personal chef experience into private cooking classes, kick ass skills in the gym to everyone's favorite personal trainer, or camera skills into the go to lady for every photo worthy occasion. I am constantly amazed at the level of talent you'll find in any pool of expat women. 

To sum up, you may be geographically limited, but that doesn't mean your creativity is! Chances are, you've got skills, dreams, talents, and experiences that you can use. Plus, you can always learn something new! You have free time, a blank slate in a new place, and nothing to lose. Building a new life in a new place is hard, no doubt about it. But it's not impossible!

So, here's some tips to sum up:

1. Think about what you're passionate about and look for ways to get plugged in.
It might feel silly, but make a list of the things you're good at or love to do. Seeing it on paper will help you formulate a plan without it being overwhelming. Brainstorm ways you could transform those passions into a creative outlet for yourself.

2. Move past the "first right answer"
Sometimes the path to our dreams is just not possible right at that moment. But there are still things you can do in the meantime to improve your skills, stay active in your interest, or get experience. Rather than being sad you can't go straight to that most logical step (getting a job in your field, going to school, participating in a club or event) think outside the box. Love salsa dancing but there are no lessons near you? Why not try another style of dancing to keep your skills and learn some new tricks? Did you want to go to cooking school but can't in your new place? Challenge yourself with new recipes and offer cooking classes to your friends.

Keep up a skill by volunteering to do something you love. Teach people things you know how to do. Write about something you're passionate about. Take classes online. Learn a new skill. Just do something so your interests don't get lost. They're a part of your identity, and can be a great source of comfort and familiarity when you feel adrift in a new place.

3. Get to googling!
I found all my contacts just by googling or seeking out expat resources online. Volunteer opportunities were a great gateway to friends and getting to use my talents and interests.

4. Start a blog
Ok, I might be biased on this one, but it really does help. Chronicling your life in a new place can help you focus on the positives of your new life, and the blogging community can be a great help and support on rough days.

5. Don't compare yourself to others
Find a creative outlet that makes YOU happy and don't worry about how it compares with other people in your life, back home or in your new place. We all think that everyone else is so much happier and well adjusted than we are, but that's usually not the case. Everyone's circumstances are different, so just focus on what's best for you. Life is not a competition!

Photo Credit

Life takes unexpected turns. During my first year in Bavaria, it was so difficult for me to get over the fact that my new home was a creative dead end for me. I went through periods of bitterness, anger, and resentment. I loved Fionn and was so happy to be with him, but I hated where I lived. Eventually I had to let it go and say, this is the place I'm in right now. I can either hate it and fight it, or I can accept that fact and make the most of it. It's an ongoing struggle some days, but if you really start looking, you can find a way to use the talents you have in any place.

So, what do you think? Have you found ways to plug in where you are? Or is it an ongoing struggle? Do you have ideas or tips? I'd love to hear your comments!

I'm headed to Berlin this weekend so I might be a little slow responding to comments while I'm gone. I'll do my best to answer as soon as I can!

Next up, Part 3: When Home Moves on Without You


  1. Another fantastic post, Shannon! That's fantastic that you've found a musical niche again. And you're very right that you can't keep comparing yourself to others. It will drive you nuts when you can never measure up, whatever the reasons.
    Our first few months in Holland, before our things arrived, none of my "usual" stuff was around yet and my son still took 2.5 hour naps. Great for some down time, but it gets boring staring at the wall and the cats would get annoyed that I wouldn't leave them alone. But I did have my e-reader and read a TON of books, including a lot of "classics" that I'd never considered before. And I enjoyed more than I thought and now have better literary and historical references.
    Now I've branched out into teaching English at the same place I take Dutch lessons, and I've beefed up my crocheting skills to the point I can now make critters! All very nice and make me feel like I'm productive beyond housework. And blogging helps, too. As you say, even if just one person finds something helpful, mission accomplished. =) And connecting to other bloggers has been fantastic! I'd recommend reading expat blogs even if you don't want to write one just because you gain insights and understand that everyone experiences similar feelings.

    1. Sometimes boredom can be a great motivator! :) my first few months I learned to embroider. I love your tip about expat blogs-sometimes just reading some can make you feel less alone in your situation!

  2. I work on post Shannon, and though the job requires a degree, they pay barely anything. I guess beggars can't be choosers around here, I'm just lucky to have a job cause you never know when it won't be available. But blogging has helped me find new jobs and make connections.

    1. Seriously, this place is a black hole of jobs. I get passed over for everything since I don't qualify for spousal preference (you have to be married and on orders before the sponsor PCSed) which is doubly frustrating. Blogging has been a total lifesaver for me!

  3. Really love this series. It does make me feel so much better knowing there are other expats out there feeling (or have felt) the same way. It's easy to just think everyone's expat life is all butterflies and rainbows by what they post online so it's nice to have some reality.

    I'm stuck at the moment until my son starts kindergarten but I've thought about ways to do things I enjoy when I can. The part about volunteering was helpful. I'm curious what you meant by googling expat resources? I think not knowing the language is a real drawback for me right now as well. I need to speed up the pace!

    1. Me too! I've loved hearing from so many people that they went through this as well.

      I started googling things like "expat women bavaria" or even more specific like "English speakers Nurnberg" just trying to see if any groups were around. I found an expat women's group in Nurnberg who ran a bunch of clubs and get togethers for English speakers. Most cities will have an International Women's Club branch and some have International schools have expat mom meet ups. Are you in a small town or a city? I know some women near me have had luck doing tandem partnerships where they offer to practice English with a non native speaker in exchange for help with that person's language. Maybe that could help?

  4. Ah Shannon, you get it. Thank you for this - really encouraging on this roller-coaster I'm on. :)

  5. What an interesting, insightful, and pragmatic post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I am enjoying your blog for the first time and love seeing your beautiful travel images.

  6. What an interesting, insightful, and pragmatic post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I am enjoying your blog for the first time and love seeing your beautiful travel images.

    1. thank you for stopping by! Sometimes being an expat is hard, but I like to think it can always get better :)